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SitRep: Trump Backing Kurds in Syria; Taliban Taking More Ground; U.S. Casualties Rise In Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia

SitRep: Trump Backing Kurds in Syria; Taliban Taking More Ground; U.S. Casualties Rise In Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Erdogan on his way. Top Turkish defense and intelligence officials huddled with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford at the Pentagon on Friday to lay the groundwork for next week’s highly anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Pentagon confirmed to SitRep.

The Turkish delegation was led by Chief of General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. The two sides “discussed issues of mutual concern as well as the current security situation in the Middle East, including the campaign to defeat ISIS,” Dunford’s spokesman, Capt. Greg Hicks said. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was not part of the meeting.

Relations have been dicey between the two NATO allies since last July’s failed military coup that sought to boot Erdogan from power, and his subsequent crackdown on the press, arrest of thousands of civil servants, academics and members of the military, and the erosion of civil rights throughout Turkey. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent comment that Washington will be less concerned about human rights in its foreign relations, and president Trump’s call last month to Erdogan congratulating him on winning a referendum that drastically increases his power over the courts, have signaled a potential warming in the relationship.

And yet…Erdogan is fresh off a May 3 trip to Russia, where he met with Vladimir Putin and discussed the impending purchase of the S-400 anti-air system from Moscow, an agreement that fellow NATO allies look at with some suspicion.

And then there’s the Kurds. One thing that will be high on the agenda at the White House meeting will be Washington’s support for Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, something Ankara vehemently opposes, saying that the YPG is simply an arm of the PKK terrorist group that seeks to break away from Turkey. FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary write that Trump is expected to tell Erdogan that Washington is prepared to support a mixed Kurdish/Syrian force to move on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, despite Turkish objections.

From the story: “The U.S. Central Command has already sent a request to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to authorize arming Syrian Kurdish forces for the Raqqa offensive, several officials said. Once Mattis signs off on the request, President Trump must give the plan his blessing to clear the way for the offensive. Officials and experts said Trump will almost certainly approve the plan put forward by commanders.” Trump inherited the blueprint for pushing ISIS out of Raqqa from Obama administration, and has debated the move since the election. The Military Times reports that recent photos have shown Kurdish fighters using advanced U.S.-made military equipment.

Casualties. The U.S. Navy SEAL killed in a firefight in Somalia on Friday became the fourth U.S. service member to die in combat in a week, and the fifth since early April, the latest casualties in President Donald Trump’s ramped-up fight against terrorists in Africa and the Middle East. The 38-year-old Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken was gunned down during an operation Thursday against the extremist group al-Shabab, in a fight that wounded two other Americans.

Increasing violence. Two Army Rangers were killed in Afghanistan battling the Islamic State last week, and another soldier died after an “explosive device” went off near Mosul, Iraq. On April 8, an Army Green Beret was killed battling the Islamic State in Eastern Afghanistan. And in Iraq over the weekend, Islamic State suicide bombers also attacked a base in northern Iraq that housed U.S. military advisors. There’s no word on potential American casualties.

Taliban surge. Despite the renewed fighting by U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s east to counter the Islamic State, the Taliban continues to gain ground. The group took another district near the city of Kunduz over the weekend, again putting the city at risk. The Taliban now exercises “significant control over 8.4 million Afghans—almost a third of the population—at the end of 2016, up from 5 million a year earlier, according to a confidential United Nations report” obtained by the Wall Street Journal. “The report showed that the territory over which the insurgents have significant influence or control increased from 30% to 40% of the country over the same period.” The United States has had thousands of troops in Afghanistan since late 2001, and has spent $71 billion on training and equipping the Afghan military.

Big spender. The Trump administration wants to spend $8 billion in Asia over next five years “to bulk up the U.S. presence,” there “by upgrading military infrastructure, conducting additional exercises and deploying more forces and ships,” reports the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold. “The Trump administration is still formulating its larger policy for Asia after essentially discarding former President Barack Obama’s so-called Asia pivot, which was disparaged by critics as thin on resources and military muscle, and dropping U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal.”

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Ixnay on the reatsthay. The Pentagon is quietly trying to turn down the dial on the tough talk about North Korea on the off chance that its recent chest-thumping could inadvertently lead Pyongyang to think a war is imminent. CNN reports that the effort includes shifting the face of news about U.S. forces and policy on the Korean Peninsula to local commanders and Pacific Command, instead of officials in Washington. The Defense Department has also quietly disappeared phrases like “show of force” from descriptions of U.S. bomber flights around the Korean Peninsula.

The thrill is gone. The whirlwind romance between President Trump and Taiwan maybe be getting chilly as the administration slow-rolls an arms sale package that had long been in the works. The Washington Post reports that Congressional staffers say an arms agreement with Taiwan begun in the last days of the Obama administration has stalled, leaving some wondering if the Trump administration is being too deferential to China to gain Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea. Trump had promised to run his calls with Taiwan by China first before he dials up Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, as he did during the transition. The administration could still move forward with arms sales, going for quick, smaller deals or holding off for a larger sale with more sophisticated technology.

This again. France got an unwelcome taste of the American experience in the 2016 presidential election during its own presidential election this weekend, with an unidentified party dumping a 9 gigabyte archive of emails allegedly hacked from the campaign of now President-elect Emmanuel Macron. The emails were posted to Archive.org and the code-sharing website pastebin and promoted with the #MacronLeaks hashtag pushed by alt-right Twitter accounts and WikiLeaks.

Macron campaign officials claim to have outsmarted the hackers who breached their accounts by feeding fake and irrelevant accounts to the phishing emails targeted at the campaign. It’s unclear, however, whether that’s true. Also unclear is who was behind the hack, although many are casting a wary eye at Russia, which has signaled its support for Macron opponent Marine Le Pen. In any case, the leaks appear to have made little difference in Macron’s landslide victory, coming in the midst of a mandatory French pre-election news blackout.

Strike two. The Trump administration’s efforts to staff up the senior ranks of the Pentagon suffered another setback this week as Tennessee State Senator and former Army doctor Mark Green withdrew from nomination to be Secretary of the Army. Green becomes the second Trump nominee to drop out from consideration for the top Army civilian job following the withdrawal of Vincent Viola, who cited the complexity of divesting from his business ventures. The Washington Post notes that the Pentagon and White House were oddly silent following Green announcement that he was withdrawing his name over growing controversy among Republicans and Democrats over his comments about the LGBT community. One anonymous senior official tells the paper that Green’s comments had concerned Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Everybody get THAAD. Saudi Arabia is looking to buy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system as part of an arms deal the U.S. hopes to sign with the Kingdom ahead of President Trump’s upcoming visit, according to Reuters. Saudi Arabia has grown alarmed in the face of its arch rival Iran’s growing ballistic missile programs. Sources tell the wire service that the arms agreement under discussion between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia could include other big-ticket items such the Littoral Combat Ship, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and M109 self-propelled artillery systems.  

Gear. American-backed Kurdish fighters are turning up with the latest and greatest tactical gear, risking the tempers of Turkish officials, Military Times reports. Fighters from the Kurdish YPG, which makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, have been spotted in social media imagery sporting sensitive equipment usually provided to the special operations components of American allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, rocking night vision goggles, infrared illuminators, and other tactical equipment. Pentagon officials tell the paper they didn’t provide YPG forces with the equipment, suggesting that it could’ve been acquired via the black market.   

 

Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images